Recently, I was training a group of instructors and heard a complaint that I had heard before from another Fiber Optic Association (FOA) training organization. Both had purchased Miller strippers for their training classes, and these particular strippers had a problem—they consistently broke the fibers.
Sometimes fibers break during stripping because the cables are old and moisture has gotten into them, making them brittle. Both instructors were aware of this, and they had tested these strippers on several cables, even cutting back the cables by 3–6 feet to get to “fresh” fibers. It was definitely a tool problem.
Both instructors had purchased a quantity of these strippers and were able to test several of them. They confirmed it was a problem with a batch of the tools.
The Miller stripper is widely used in training classes because it seems to be the most rugged type of fiber stripper for student use; it is also probably the most popular for field use. (See “The Right Tools for You,” November 2012, at www.ECmag.com for a review of fiber strippers.) These tools are exceedingly rugged and well-made, so they rarely have problems.
In the first instance, I was able to examine one of these strippers myself and compare it to a known good one that I had obtained from the manufacturer. The stripping hole showed the problem. The “real” Miller stripper had a smoothly and evenly ground “V” and stripping hole, while the problem tool was ragged and irregular. We concluded it was counterfeit.
Counterfeiting tools like this is actually easy. The tool is made from simple metal parts with a plastic handle. If you have a factory making wire strippers, you can easily grind a different stripping hole and call it a fiber stripper. Hot-stamp a logo copied off the manufacturer’s website, and you have a tool that is hard to tell from the real one—until you try to use it. Tools that include molded plastic parts are harder to counterfeit, but manufacturers making products offshore often have their plastic molding tools made offshore, too. Someone told me that a tool-maker he knew routinely made two or three extra tools at the same time to sell to counterfeiters.
So were these tools bought off an auction website for a cheap price? Not at all. Both batches were purchased from a full-line fiber optic distributor that advertises low prices. Out of curiosity, I searched the web for several fiber optic tools and found a vast difference in price—as much as three to one! One cannot conclude that cheap tools are counterfeit without buying and examining them, but these sorts of price differences always make me suspicious.
Counterfeiting is big business. Designer handbags, prescription drugs and DVDs are probably on the top of the list, but counterfeit cable, tools and construction equipment have been discovered as well. Last year, Construction Week reported on a seizure of more than 150,000 counterfeit tools including Stanley, Black & Decker and DeWalt products in warehouses in a free-trade zone in the United Arab Emirates.
In another instance, an FOA member contacted me several years ago about problems with some Cat 5e cable he had purchased. The wires were breaking when punched down. He sent me a sample, and I examined it with a microscope. The wires were not copper but copper-clad aluminum! This cable has become “famous” and is the subject of many online discussions, noting its higher resistance could be dangerous when used with power over Ethernet. I took my sample and tried a “flame test” with startling results that you can see on the FOA’s YouTube channel, thefoainc.
Just recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission required Home Depot to recall 11 million feet of Cat 6 cable—11,000 boxes of 1,000 feet of cable—that was marked as rated riser cable but failed fire resistance tests. A quick web search found what looked like the same cable being sold on eBay by several sellers—with the logo airbrushed out to hide the brand!
Fiber optic cable has also been counterfeited. The origin of the fiber is unknown and the fire resistance of the cable questionable. Even counterfeit fiber optic connectors have been discovered.
How do you detect counterfeit products? It’s not easy. When the copper-clad aluminum cables first surfaced, it was noted that they were lighter than regular copper cable by about 7 pounds. Within weeks, the counterfeiters started ballasting boxes so the weight was the same. How about price? The copper-clad aluminum Cat 5 was sold for about the same price as other cables.
I first became suspicious of counterfeiting when buying Cat 5 patchcords at a large tech retailer. I noted that every cable—Cat 5, 5e and 6—had the same UL registration number. UL has a section on its website where you can check numbers against its database. While that helps, finding counterfeit tools and other parts can be hard. Buyer beware.
Editor’s note: In 2008, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR ran a supplement in partnership with tED magazine about counterfeit electrical products. The topic is still relevant. Check out the coverage at www.counterfeitscankill.com.